Dir. Vijaya Mehta
This quiet film paints a fairly depressing picture of life within Bombay's insular Parsi community. The interior spaces of the film are cluttered with ornate Victorian decorations – heavy carved furniture, lace table coverings, lamps whose bases are life-sized statues – but they remain shabby, dingy. The film also occupies the interior space of its protagonist's skull, and this too is a dreary, cluttered space.
Piroj Shah (Naseeruddin Shah) is a miserable sad-sack of a man. When he dawdles in deciding whether to marry Jeroo (Shabana Azmi), selected for him by a matchmaker, his best friend Pesi (Anupam Kher) marries her instead. For the following decades, Piroj harbors an idealized fantasy of Jeroo and her marriage that bears little resemblance to the life she and Pesi actually lead.
But then, none of the Parsis in Pestonjee has an especially joyful or glamorous life. A party that Piroj attends with his boss, outside the Parsi community, is bustling with vibrant, cultured intellectuals, laughing and jesting. But a party that Pesi and Jeroo throw for Piroj is a dismal and claustrophobic affair, with no guests from outside Pesi's household save Piroj himself.
The result is a sense of a community eating itself. Jeroo is not exactly a warm or appealing character, but it's clear that her married life is toxic to whatever zest there is in her. And as the marriage stagnates, Pesi turns to an affair with a lawyer named Soona (Kirron Kher). Soona is half-Parsi, half-Punjabi, as she mentions with great mirth at the party at which she is introduced, which makes her a sort of stepping-stone between Pesi and the outside world.
And so Pestonjee is an interesting, if not terribly flattering, window into Parsi life. As a film it is thoughtful and compelling, though all its characters are grating. Jeroo (in one of my least favorite performances by my most favorite Shabana Azmi) is shrill and shallow. Pesi is self-absorbed, cavalier about responsibilities. And Piroj wallows in his self-imposed misery and sits in sanctimonious judgment over his friend. The best scenes in the film come when Pesi confronts Piroj about judgments; in these moments, Pestonjee becomes more than a tightly focused lens on a Parsi family. It becomes a broadly applicable plea in favor of taking joy where you can find it.